That essay by Ann Kirschner I linked to the other day beat me to a punch: I had been planning a post about choices of, shall we say, reading venue. It’s been about ten years since I’ve read Middlemarch — one of the two greatest English novels, the other being Bleak House, if you want to know — which means that it’s time to re-read it. All I had to do was decide what the delivery vehicle would be.

  • I have a Penguin Classics paperback, with a nice font and good notes.
  • I have a recent Everyman’s Library edition, which seems to be photo-offset from an old two-volume edition. Nice hard covers and a silk bookmark.
  • I have an old Oxford World’s Classics hardcover — small (4×6 inches) and blue, with very slightly yellowed pages — I picked up in Hay-on-Wye some years ago.
  • I had a Project Gutenberg version on my Kindle until I lost my Kindle, but I still have it available on my iPhone. (I could use the Kindle iPhone app or Stanza.)
  • And I could read it on my laptop, say with the Gutenberg text and Readability.

This was actually an easy call for me. Want to guess which one I chose?


  1. The Everyman's Library edition: sturdy, handsome, electricity-less.

    (Also: Bleak House over even Moby-Dick?)

  2. Does the Penguin edition have the small margins? It seems to me that most of the cheap classic versions of novels cram their text too close to the spine and you end up peeking into the corner to read the ends of the lines.

    Wouldn't the iPhone app tire your eyes since it's not the electronic paper?

    (Oh, and Adam, he did say English novels.)

  3. I'm in love with the Everyman editions. They're just beautiful, and surprisingly cheap for the quality.

  4. Ah, duh — thanks, Geoff.

    And good point about margins, which can be a nuisance for reading and can make note-taking difficult. (Copious note-takers probably dislike really thin paper, too, which the Everyman's edition has.)

  5. I can't believe I'm thinking about this again, hours after reading the post the first time, but I'm tempted to guess that you'll go with the iPhone app since you're re-reading it and might slip it in at odd times instead of curled up in one place (then you don't have to carry the book home or to the office, depending on where you're doing the bulk of your reading, and since it's summer and you're likely walking to work).

    Personally, however, I'd have gone with the nice pages and silk book mark–anything to get my eyes away from a screen and digital distractions for a while.

  6. Time to end the overwhelming suspense: I chose the old Oxford World's Classics edition. I adore those things — smaller than a mass market paperback, but with hard covers and sewn pages. The old ones lie flat at almost any page. These are the only books I collect.

    In general I very much like the Everyman's Library, but this particular edition of Middlemarch was poorly photographed; it has a good many dim spots.

    If I had ben reading for class, and needing to take notes, it would have been the Penguin edition (those old Classics have narrow margins). But this is just for fun.

    Also: Adam, I have deeply mixed feelings about Moby-Dick. If I had to choose a Best American Novel is would probably be Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

  7. I *knew* it was that one! Why else would you mention where you got it? A dead giveaway of a special sentimental connection. I'm the same way. I should have bet money. 🙂

  8. I have never liked reading books on my Kindle, but the other week when I thought I lost the thing I was ready to put in another order that day. Kindle offers a couple key things for me:

    1) I no longer have to read long articles online. This ate WAY too much of my work day, and I hate reading my computer screen. Now, whenever I see something interesting, I just copy, paste and send it to the Kindle so that I can read over breakfast or at my local diner.

    2) I always have to have reading material with me, but I often don't know which book to take. With the Kindle I just take everything.

    Now if I'm dead stuck on getting through one book without interruption, then I take that book with me. I love books so much that I generally only buy first editions of everything and I wrap my dustcovers in mylar. I literally enjoy the reading experience more with a great first edition. And carrying one around is hardly a burden–it's more like something you carry around with style.

    I do wish more journals that I read (First Things, Claremont Review of Books, City Journal) where available on Kindle. I can cut and paste them to the Kindle for free, but I'd rather just buy a subscription and have each of them there when I want.

  9. You're the third person in a little more than the same number of weeks who has put Middlemarch at the top of their Hall of Fame. Looks like I'm going to have to get it off the shelf and read it again, since it didn't make that kind of impression on me when I read it a few decades ago. And I'd take the Penguin, since I enjoy notes, even in reading-for-pleasure, and like the larger size.

    As for Bleak House, yes, my notion of the almost-perfect novel — if the Esther 1st person wasn't so cringe-inducing sometimes. My ancient paperback could do with an upgrade. Any suggestions as to edition? I prefer paperback and would love one with good intro and notes.

  10. nadezhda, I really like the Penguin edition of Bleak House as well. The Norton Critical Edition is just overkill, for me — I to like good notes, but not to be overwhelmed by them.

    As I was telling a friend this morning, the astonishing achievement of Bleak House, for me, is the way it sets Esther's exaggerated sweetness against the worldly cynicism of the book's unnamed other narrator. That is just bloody brilliant, and no one but Dickens could have pulled it off.

  11. Thanks for the recommendation. Know what you mean about the Nortons, so Penguin it is.

    My "perfect novels" are Dorothy Dunnett's historicals. But Bleak House comes close. I suppose in part because I so adore the omni voice(s) of Dickens' narrator that Esther's voice sometimes just puts my teeth on edge. I want to hurry the book back to the narrator.

    Part of it is a function of plot demands – we have to accept that she doesn't catch on to some stuff even though she's clearly intelligent and perceptive. Hence, the knowing innocent with some heavy-duty blinders. And for the most part, Dickens succeeds with distinguishing where she's knowing and where she's blind, especially about herself.

    But I do think he goes over the top sometimes with a cloying sweetness that erodes the plausibility of the character. Now, he clearly goes over the top with lots of his characters in the narrator's voice, yet we accept and even embrace the narrator's high-and-low comedy or wrenching pathos. But I think Esther's excessive sweetness can get cloying or, worse yet, tedious precisely because it's in her voice.

    Still, how do I love it, let me count the ways. It's a masterwork. Time to read it again!

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